A Sermon Preached on the 40th Anniversary of Women's Ordination in The Episcopal Church
Recently, while I was at Fort Defiance at the Navajo Convocation, I met a group called YOUTH ALIVE, an interdenominational group of high school students from around the country, who spend a series of weeks each summer, working, praying, and living together at an assigned mission location. They have a sign posted which I found myself drawn to:
This is what it said: "IF YOU WANT TO LIVE IN JESUS -- THEN YOU HAVE TO BEGIN TO LIVE AS JESUS LIVED!"
Think about these words for a moment. Jesus definitely spent a good part of his days with the people that were outcasts, disliked, and considered not "the in-crowd" by the religious of the day!
After reading the gospel lesson for this Sunday -- there were several important messages that got my attention! Last week we heard Rev. Kristin speak about the complex composition and meaning of the parables. Although they are clearly meant to draw our attention to issues that needed addressing --they are not the quick and simple stories we might like.
Remember the story about the farmer who sold his mule to his friend with the promise that the mule was cooperative and would do whatever told. But after the sale, the new owner, exasperated, having done everything he could think of, from commanding quietly-- to yelling forcefully for the mule to pull his plow--went back to his farmer friend and complained. The friend came to the rescue and taking a 2X4 swung with force and hit the mule on the rump. "Now," he said, "pull that plow." And the mule did!
"I thought you said he was cooperative," said the new owner, "and would do what I asked."
"He will, only FIRST, you have to get his attention!"
I believe that Jesus was teaching this parable about the wheat and the tares (weeds) in order to get the attention of the crowd! Hear again the question that the slaves asked of the master about the unwanted weeds:
“…do you want us to go and gather them?”
And the answer of the master was a CLEAR “NO”
That gives us our first clue as to how we are to live. A definite warning!
It would appear, that while the owner of the field was unaware, that which was foreign to the good seed, managed to get in and settle alongside!
Weeds! Who among us - who has gardened - does not know the battle with weeds? But our lesson this morning gives us a somewhat different message about those particular weeds. These are weeds that Jesus lets them know need to live and grow right alongside the good seed until it comes time to harvest. Known in biblical terms as "tares", these bearded darnel roots surrounding the roots of these good plants, make it impossible to root the unwanted ones out-- that is -- without damaging the good crop. That is the interesting detail.
Above ground, darnel looks identical to wheat, until it bears seed. Jesus' parable appears to be cautioning us against a rush to judgment. We cannot always tell initially what is the wheat and what is not. The strong message regarding those elements that are not the ones we planted --- begs the question of what to do when they present themselves in our space…I would say that this parable is first and primarily about relationships between people -- not judging and not assuming WHO ARE THE WHEAT AND WHO ARE THE WEEDS:
The other message in this parable and one we need keep in mind -- is this: ULTIMATELY, GOD IS STILL IN CHARGE
I suspect that Matthew was writing for a mixed Jewish Christian and Gentile congregation; neither group wanted to accept the other. Each viewed the other as “the weeds,” themselves as” the wheat.” We can certainly see this tendency in ourselves at times --ignoring those outside our inner circle as well as pretending we don't have some of the same flaws in us. In a world where seeds of hatred and injustice are sown daily -- how difficult it is not to judge --not to exclude!
When we imagine ourselves in the crowd gathering around Jesus, we realize that Jesus attracts all manner of people: whether they be women, children, the elderly, beggars seeking a hangout, people dressed all wrong for attending our church, even those who are outcasts in society.
-- -----BEYOND THE DESIRE TO BE WITH JESUS!
THERE IS NO STANDARD FOR ADMISSION TO BEING IN THE JESUS CROWD
Jesus prohibited judging in his teaching (over and over). He was always in some conflict with the Scribes and Pharisees for their personal judgment of people and their attempts to control the minutiae of other’s lives. YET, most people who have been alienated from the church today have said what they found most difficult about Christians, “Church people can be SO judgmental”!
Just how do we open ourselves to thinking and living the way Jesus calls us to live. By his life, Jesus teaches us that no matter how critical the needs are, no matter how important the work that we do,we all, need to go away at times to a quiet place and rest in God’s presence – enabling the grace of God to work in the hidden world of our hearts. That’s just one more example of “how Jesus lived!”
What a concept -- even though we might wish otherwise, if we are to grow up into Christ, side by side with the wheat and the chaff, the weeds,-- we are expected to accompany one another on the spiritual journey! But as Brian Taylor used to say: “Make this an experiment in your life – to LIVE as Jesus lived – TRUSTING JESUS as you go.” Not falling back into the pattern of fear or control!
Conventional “good guy/bad guy” interpretations of this parable limit the possibilities, the chance for reconciliation, and the maturing in faith and compassion!
Sometimes there are exclusions and separations that are painful to experience, especially when people are living side by side. Good example would be the pain experienced by those involved in the 41 wars being fought presently in our world - many living side by side!
Some years ago, after spending a week in an interdenominational spiritual growth retreat, the large number of participants were to share in a final service together which was held in the sanctuary of the Roman Church. As the mass began, the priest ready to consecrate the elements -- stopped. Facing the cross with his back to his brothers and sisters , his shoulders began to shake and as he wept be bent his head to the altar. There was absolute quiet for a moment and everyone knew the pain in this man's heart -- that he would not be able to serve many of his brothers and sister in this the GREAT THANKSGIVING - THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST!
Following what seemed an interminable silence -- everyone could hear the footsteps coming down that long aisle. It was a Lutheran pastor who had been one of the participants all week. When he reached the altar he enveloped his brother in his arms and they wept together. I doubt there were any dry eyes at that point and then suddenly --- someone in the balcony began singing -- "We Are One In The Spirit" …..And They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love, By our Love… They Will Know We are Christians By Our Love….
That moment was for everyone the highest level of communion any of them could have known that day. Somehow, the love of Christ had transcended all the exclusiveness and separations that man had created.
Sometimes we can't program our community to be exactly the way we'd like. What if all those conference participants that day had just gotten up and walked out!!!! Instead, they sang, they surrounded with song the two pastors at the altar -- in a powerful reminder that we're all in this together!!!! They will know we are Christians by our love. We’re all in this together, St. Michael’s!!!!!
Understanding our gospel message today means: strong in our forbearance and patience, hearts unfrozen, and always willing to live as Jesus lived. I believe that St. Michael’s is ready to move ahead! Let’s move ahead, in the Jesus crowd, by taking the risk -- trusting Jesus as we live the way Jesus lived! To be a community as Steven Charleston describes in his prayer on Sanctuary, a house of God that shelters all those who come in need!!!!!
I want to close with this prayer from the "Spiritual Diary" by Steven Charleston : pray with me:
Let our communities of faith be a sanctuary for any who seek safe space simply to be who they are. Let our walls be a refuge against intolerance and fear, our welcome, a healing hand to restore the dignity of every human heart. Let our doors be ever open, O God, to protect your children from harm. Give us the courage to be the sanctuary for others that you have been for us, the one place we knew we could go when the dark clouds gathered and the hearth of our hope grew cold."
We are all in this together St. Michael’s. They’ll know we are Christians by our love!!!!!
The other day I came across this short post by author and blogger Seth Godin,
Fast, easy, guaranteed.
That’s the work worth doing.
I laughed at myself a bit, because at the time I was procrastinating –
checking my email again to put off the work of writing a sermon.
I was reminded that there is a reason preparing to preach is not fast, easy, or guaranteed.
And it is work worth doing.
I was also reminded of the lesson for today.
This morning’s gospel lesson is a parable – the first in a series of parables in the 13th chapter of Matthew, which we will read in the coming weeks.
Parables also are not fast, easy, or guaranteed.
We would like them to be simple illustrations,
to clarify what Jesus wants us to know about the kingdom of God.
We would like Jesus to tell a parable, and have the disciples – and us! –
say, “Oh, I see now!”
Instead, parables most often receive the opposite reaction – then and now.
What does that mean?
And why do you keep telling these crazy stories, Jesus?
C. H. Dodd has suggested that the purpose of a parable is to tease the mind into active thought.
Fr. Robert Capon suggests that in using parables, Jesus was trying to obfuscate –
to shake up what his listeners thought they knew about God,
to challenge their assumptions about religion
and to help them see that God’s kingdom is a mystery.
Parables are not fast, easy, or guaranteed.
But they are all the more interesting because of it,
and very much worth the time it takes to explore, examine,
and tease out understanding of what Jesus is saying about God and the world.
Listen! A sower went out to sow . . .
Jesus tells a story of a farmer who takes his seed and scatters it on the ground,
indiscriminately, with no prior preparation.
The seed meets with various fates – eaten by birds, choked by rocks and thorns,
or growing to produce a miraculous harvest.
The disciples ask Jesus – what does it mean?
And so he explains his story.
Jesus doesn’t say who the sower is.
What he does say is that the seed is the Word.
Not words – like words on a page – but Logos, the Word.
Logos is an idea, a message expressed.
It is an utterance of God.
It is also Jesus himself, the Word made flesh.
The prophet Isaiah has said about God’s Word,
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
This is the Word of God which the sower sows,
which falls, like rain, on all types of soil.
In his explanation of the parable, Jesus describes the different types of soil the word encounters.
He describes the ways the seed does not take hold,
or takes hold but then is smothered or neglected.
Finally, he turns to the good soil – perhaps the disciples themselves -
those who receive the word, and understand, and bear fruit.
This is an important thing for Jesus to address at this time in his ministry.
He has been engaged in ministry among the people for some time,
teaching, healing, casting out demons,
and instead of great success, he is meeting great resistance.
Chapter 12 of Matthew’s gospel is full of stories of the increasing animosity the religious leaders feel toward Jesus.
It is the first time they contemplate violence against him.
So this parable, and its explanation, offer an explanation of what is happening.
It is not that his ministry is wrong.
It is not the Word that is ineffective.
But some soils – some people – are not able to receive it.
At this point, many sermons and lessons on the parable of the sower turn to us with the exhortation to “be good soil.”
Clear our hearts and minds and prepare a place for the word to take root.
And that is not a bad message.
But what if Jesus’s explanation is more descriptive than prescriptive.
Simply pointing out that people’s expectations or preconceived notions about God and the kingdom can prevent them from hearing.
What might that look like for us, today?
David Lose points out that “life is busy and complex and most of us come to Sunday a little bit ragged at the edges.”
The demands of work, parenting, caring for aging parents, supporting good causes and just keeping up with the ever-increasing demands of life –
all good things, worth doing! –
may make us feel like soil choked with weeds or cluttered with rocks.
Yet God sows
The Logos – the eternal, creative word of God –
still offers new life.
The Logos – the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ –
still loves us and seeks us and invites us to follow.
We might pray, Lord, let my heart be good soil –
let me clear my mind of distractions for a little while so I may hear you –
let me make space to worship and read and study Scripture.
But we might also pray –
Thank you, God, for scattering your seed – your word – your grace and love –
with such abandon.
Thank you for tossing seed my way, even when I’m barely paying attention.
Thank you for blessing me, and seeking me, and loving me, no matter what.
The parable of the sower describes a God of abundance.
A God who never gives up, never stops scattering blessings and grace.
It invites us to trust in a God whose Word does not come back empty,
but offers transformation and new life in our rockiest places.
And perhaps this story invites us also to be sowers.
To be extravagant in the ways we share God’s grace,
in words of love and acts of generosity.
It invites us to give witness to what we know of God and God’s abundance,
to share what we have experienced of God’s grace and blessing.
It invites us to scatter that blessing,
not carefully, in prepared soil, in places we can define and control,
but with abandon – trusting the seed – the Logos – to do its proper work.
Carolyn Metzler and I were discussing this parable, and she remembered a line from a poem by T. S. Eliot: take no thought of the harvest, but only of proper sowing.
I am going to end by sharing some excerpts from this amazing poem,
Choruses from the Rock.
I offer these not as clarifying illustrations, but as contemporary parable –
to make us think, and offer new perspectives on sowing.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say: take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.
In the vacant places
We will build with new bricks
There are hands and machines
And clay for new brick
And lime for new mortar
Where bricks are fallen
We will build with new stone
Where the beams are rotten
We will build with new timbers
Where the word is unspoken
We will build with new speech
There is work together
A Church for all
And a job for each
Every man to his work.
Lord, shall we not bring these gifts to Your service?
Shall we not bring to Your service all our powers
For life, for dignity, grace and order,
And intellectual pleasures and senses?
The Lord who created must wish us to create
And employ our creation again in His service
Which is already his service in creating.
Listen! A sower went out to sow . . .
and invites us all to be sowers as well. Thanks be to God. Amen
In the good ol’ bad ol’ days before I discovered the Episcopal Church I was staying at an old Convent in Keene, NH where there were many statues of Jesus with the sacred heart. Raised as I had been in a liberal Protestant Church, this was totally new imagery to me. I was strangely affected by these statues—profoundly drawn to them and yet repelled at the same time. They offended my Protestant sensibilities, and yet I suspected they knew something I didn’t, and I wanted to know it. It was something about an Incarnate God so vulnerable that God’s very heart could be wounded. I did not like the statues—blonde, blue eyed Jesus with the tears running down his face, the sappy sentimental expression and the blood running down the open hole in his chest—ickypoo—and yet—and yet there was an invitation there which lay beneath the realm of description. It had to do with intimacy, with joy, with a profound connection which I knew I desperately wanted. It was my deepest yearning, my heart’s desire. I just couldn’t get past the form of the statue to its deeper invitation.
One night I had a dream that an old woman came to me holding a great treasure wrapped in fine cloth. She offered it to me. I felt afraid, knowing that receiving this gift would change me. Without words she unwrapped the offering. As the cloth fell away I saw she was holding the sacred heart of Jesus, without sentimentality, without gilding, without sap. It was raw, wounded, vulnerable. She offered to put it into my chest. I knew that if I accepted the invitation, I would be profoundly changed; I would have to give up my life as I ran it with my own agendas, my favorite rationalizations and excuses and open myself to the certain wounding of love. I understood the promise and also the cost. With great shame, I took a step backward—and woke up.
“I do not understand my own actions,” writes Paul, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Who here can’t relate to that? Ever since that dream I have wrestled with these words, remembering the dream where I spurned the gift of God which was also my heart’s desire. I find it is more that I don’t do what I yearn to do rather than do what I despise. I want to be a person of prayer—but—at the moment it feels more urgent to slide into another game of Spider Solitaire.
I find the words to be true of communities also. We hear the words of the Gospel, we respond “Thanks be to God,” we nod assent to even the hardest sayings of Jesus, we watch the bread broken open at the altar and suspect we are offering our own lives to that brokenness—and then we get stuck in the stupid stuff; the imagined slights we received in community, the wrong assumptions made on our behalf, the myriad ways we get our feelings hurt. Things don’t go the way we want them to. We sulk. We offer something we believe is valuable. It is received shabbily. We become anxious. When we get anxious we try to control more. How easily we forget who we are actually following.
We are all driven by things we do not understand. For some that compulsion is born out of experiences which mark us forever. For some—most, I’d say, it is fear. Fear of not being loved or appreciated, or understood, fear of abandonment, or of being without, fear of pain, fear of death, fear of loneliness. You can fill in your own “fear du jour.” Becoming conscious of what drives us is a major part of the spiritual journey; becoming conscious and allowing God to heal that fear. It is not easy, and none of us can do it alone. We need each other, we need the sacraments, we need prayer and most of all, and we need God’s grace to keep working on us, calling us to be broken open to healing love.
Today’s Gospel follows a silent story not told anywhere, of Jesus’ mission to Galilee which had apparently been a total failure. We glean that he had been received with a giant yawn from the intelligent, self-sufficient people of the area who felt they had no need of either John the Baptist’s call to repentance nor Jesus’ invitation to the wedding feast. Theirs was the sin of indifference. In our omitted verses today Jesus reproaches the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida for of their apathy. The Greek word we translate “Woe” is not an angry, vengeful word threatening fire and brimstone. The word is “ouai” which is more about sorrowful pity. Jesus is responding not with the outrage of a humiliated ego but with a broken heart. It is the sadness of anyone who offers a treasured gift which is treated shabbily. It was the look in the eyes of the old woman in my dream when I stepped back from the proffered sacred heart of Jesus.
And then we get some lines which sound more like they come from John’s Gospel than Matthew’s about how if you want to know God you need only look at the Son. Only through Christ can we see God. Again the Greek invites us into a deeper understanding. The word “know” here is not an intellectual grasping, but a word which also includes choice and intimacy. In the Hebrew Bible the word is synonymous with sexual intimacy. To know God through Christ is to enter the realm of lovers.
And then Jesus drives his point home. "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." We have heard these words over and over for so long, they have lost their punch. By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, Judaism had disintegrated into a network of harsh laws and regulations regulating normal life making it almost impossible for the poor to survive under the strict code of sacrifice. The big question was “what are the requirements of faith for a Jew?” The answer was more rules.
We don’t groan under those burdens, but we have plenty of our own. The greatest burden of all is that of perfectionism. I speak as a “one” on the Enneagram. No matter what I do, how well it comes off, there is that inner voice which picks it apart. “Well,” begins the litany of critique. “You forgot to do this, and you missed that part, and you could have been more articulate there, and what were you thinking when you made that stupid joke….” and on it goes. My idolatry is that of perfectionism which I neatly disguise as my self-sacrificing service to God. Only—it is an entirely self-imposed burden which has nothing to do with God. It has everything to do with my own pride. It is what made me step back from receiving God’s heart in my dream. Perfectionism in individuals and in communities is the anti-Gospel. It is the devil itself disguised as Goodness and Light. God does not require perfection. God requires humility and vulnerability. It is why Jesus keeps using the image of children and here infants as the paradigm of approach to God. Children are open to learning. Children are hungry for connection, the willingness to be taught (until they get to be about six, of course. Our daughter’s favorite line was “I do it self!”) But perfectionists like me want to “do it self “ all the time. So we heap more and more burdens on ourselves and become exhausted. The poet David Whyte quotes David Stendahl Rast as saying that “The antidote to exhaustion is not rest; it is singleness of heart.” [repeat quote]
That is why the yoke is easy and the burden light. A yoke is a wooden frame fitted to a beast of burden to pull the work. Yokes in ancient Palestine were made by carpenters, so it was likely that Jesus himself had made them. The oxen were measured carefully, and each yoke was made to fit perfectly so the oxen were not chafed or bruised by the yoke. In fact, the Greek word translated “easy” here also means “well-fitting.” A custom-built yoke! In other words, the work God has for us will be suited to our needs and our abilities. God does not ask us to do what is impossible for us. True “call” is tailored to who we are so when we engage the work we can do so with joy. Joy is never burdensome! When the work is given and received with love, it is life-giving, not draining. In the immortal words of the Hollies, “He ain’t heavy—he’s my brother.”
Where I grew up in Indonesia our village was surrounded by rice paddies, I spent long hours watching the water buffalo pull the plows. Those yokes were double yokes—fitting two buffalo at once so they could share the strain, and take turns resting a bit. They pulled together to ease the work. What a wonderful image for the body of Christ! I think it is a double image. We are yoked together, to be sure. But we are also yoked with God who pulls with us. After the Examination in the Diaconal ordination liturgy, the Bishop says these wonderful words: “May the Lord by his grace uphold you in the service he lays upon you.” God partners with us. The stole I wear is a symbolic yoke, a reminder that I am yoked to you and we are all yoked to Christ. I like Eugene Peterson’s transliteration of this passage:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
We will not do it perfectly. We need to forgive each other and ourselves over and over again, as God forgives each of us. And—surprise! It is exactly our failures which become occasions of grace. Leonard Cohen writes, “Everything is cracked. That’s how the light gets in.” Christ’s yoke is not one of “anything goes,” not one of permissiveness. It is very hard to be a Christian, but not because God makes it hard. We make it hard ourselves. The good we want to do we don’t. The bad that we don’t want to do we do. We are caught in our various compulsions and fear and addictions and often don’t quite believe any of this. Who will rescue us? Paul in his despair about his long string of failures throws off the despair and casts himself into the ocean of God’s mercy. Thanks be to God who gives us victory through Christ Jesus!
Leonard Cohen (my fifth evangelist) wrote a song years ago which cries that praise rising out of the fiasco of human failure:
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah,
Hallelujah, hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.